Topic: Education and Child Policy

SAT Changes = Bad News for Common Core?

Working on education every day, you get used to your subject rarely making major national news, probably because the troubles are constant and sudden crises rare.  But change the SAT – once known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test – and all heck breaks loose. Of course, something else has been springing heck all over the country, too  – the Common Core – but because that fight has been taking place mainly at the state level, the nation’s collective attention has never been turned to it all at once. The SAT brouhaha might, however, change that, likely to the chagrin of Core defenders.

What’s the connection between the Core and the SAT? A big one: David Coleman, who is both a chief architect of the Core and president of the SAT-owning College Board. Coleman announced when he took over the Board that he would align the SAT with the Core, and it was clear in the Board’s SAT press release that that is what’s happening. Employing Common Core code, the Board announced that the new SAT will focus on “college and career readiness.”

Why is this potentially bad news for Core supporters? Because the SAT changes are widely being criticized as dumbing-down the test – good-bye words like “prevaricator,” hello toughies like “synthesis” – and that may drive attention to people who are questioning the quality of the Core. Illustrating unhappiness with the changes, in the Washington Post yesterday both a house editorial and a column by Kathleen Parker dumped on the coming SAT reforms, with the editorial stating:

It sounds as though students could conceivably get a perfect score on the new exam and yet struggle to fully comprehend some of the articles in this newspaper. Colleges should want to know if their would-be English majors are conversant in words more challenging than “synthesis,” or that their scores reflect more than lucky bubble guesses…

Maybe even more troubling than losing an outlet like the Post, if you’re a Core supporter, is possibly losing a guy like Andy Smarick at the pro-Core Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Last week Smarick defended knowledge of words that SAT bosses now deem too “obscure.” To be sure, Smarick didn’t “decimate” the new SAT (see the post), but his critique was enough to elicit a response from Coleman himself.

From a Core opposition perspective, it is crucial that people make the connection between the SAT and the Core, and that may be happening. The Post noted that “it’s no accident that this push comes from a College Board president who helped produce the K-12 Common Core standards.” Similarly, the New York Times report on the changes identified Coleman as “an architect of the Common Core curriculum standards.”

Making this connection is important because Core supporters’ major pro-Core (as opposed to anti-Core-opponent) argument is that the standards are highly “rigorous.” That claim has taken heat from several subject-matter experts, but they have struggled to be heard amidst pro-Core rhetoric.  Sudden and intense national scrutiny of the SAT, if directly connected to the Core, might help doubters of Core excellence get more attention.

Of course, the primary reason to object to the Core is not that it may or may not be high-quality – though that is certainly an important concern – but that it is being foisted on the nation through federal power, and a monopoly over what schools teach is a huge problem. It kills competition among differing ideas and models of education, stifles innovation, and severely limits the ability of children – who are all unique individuals – to access education tailored to their specific needs, abilities, and dreams.

Common Core opponents should be encouraged by a national critique of coming SAT changes not, ultimately, because the changes are good or bad, but because serious scrutiny could well bolster resistance to the federally driven Core. In so doing, it could help to preserve some of the freedom necessary to ensure that standards have to earn their business rather than having children handed to them by Washington.

Kansas Court Wrests School-Budget Decisions from Voters

Many public schooling advocates chafe at our constitutional tradition that public moneys be appropriated only at the behest of voters or their elected lawmakers, since it means school budgets often wind up getting rejected, trimmed, or balanced off against other budgetary priorities. As I’ve noted previously in this space, a well-organized, foundation-backed movement has pursued litigation around the 50 states urging courts instead to seize control of school funding in the name of “equitable” or “adequate” school funding.

Such an effort succeeded last week in Kansas, where the state supreme court ruled in favor of a challenge and “ordered increases by July 1 that, according to the state Department of Education, would total $129 million annually.” The case will go back to litigation in a lower court and conceivably could result in further court decrees that could be broader and much more expensive. The Kansas affiliate of the National Education Association can hardly contain its jubilation, while the Associated Press writes that “If the courts order more spending in the future, lawmakers may have to reconsider personal income tax cuts in 2012 and 2013 that were championed by [Gov. Sam] Brownback.”

As I wrote a while back on New Jersey’s Abbott school finance litigation (one broken link removed):

school reform lawsuits like Abbott are much more than just vehicles for inefficiency and waste of tax dollars: they’re examples of an alternative method of governance…. Typically, successful litigation of this sort transfers control over an important issue like school funding from branches of government that are accountable to taxpayers and voters to a cluster of private litigators, expert witnesses, special masters, consultants, law professors, backers in liberal foundations, and so forth. The legal basis for the power grab is often flimsy in the extreme; in the Garden State, for example, the state constitution vaguely mandates that there be a “thorough and efficient” system of public education, and “educational equity” lawyers have prevailed on the courts to erect the whole thirty-year edifice of Abbott orders on a filling in of those mysterious blanks, a process that Gov. Christie has accurately described as “legislating from the bench”. (Our friend Hans Bader at CEI has more here.) In New Jersey, as in many other states and cities subject to these suits, governors and legislators may come and go, but the permanent government of court orders and negotiated consent decrees grinds on and on, conferring a curiously unaccountable power on the lawyers who manage and advance the litigation and their circle of allies.

Live Free and Learn

Earlier this week, the Show-Me Institute released my study “Live Free and Learn,” the first analysis of New Hampshire’s trailblazing scholarship tax credit program, which is the first in the nation to include homeschoolers. The study found that participants in the program were overwhelmingly low-income and nearly universally satisfied. Some of the key findings include:

  • 97 percent of parents of scholarship recipients are satisfied with their chosen private or home school.
  • 68 percent of parents reported that they noticed measurable academic improvement in their child since receiving the scholarship.
  • 91 percent of scholarship recipients had a household income that would qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch program under the federal National School Lunch program (185 percent of the federal poverty line, or $43,568 for a family of four).
  • 74 percent of private school parents reported that they would have been unable to afford tuition without the scholarship.

I discuss the findings of the study in greater detail at the Education Next blog.

Whose Brother’s Keeper? Obama Administration Denies School Choice

The Obama administration’s proposed budget for 2015 would continue unsustainable spending growth at more than twice the rate of inflation and hike taxes by more than $1 trillion. It also includes $69 billion in education spending, much of it on programs that are unconstitutional, proven to be ineffective, or both.

And yet, in one area where the federal government has the constitutional authority to fund and manage education policy—the District of Columbia school system—the Obama administration’s budget cuts all funding to the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), which has proven to be much more effective than the government-run school monopoly.

The administration’s proposal is particularly puzzling in the wake of the president’s announcement last week that he is launching a $200 million charitable initiative called My Brother’s Keeper to help young, male minorities. As Dr. Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas points out today at the Choice Words blog, there is solid evidence that school choice programs tremendously aid exactly that population:

Three evaluations of private-school choice programs have followed enough students for sufficiently long to determine their effects on the rates of high-school graduation, college enrollment, or both. A 2010 evaluation of the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program that I led for the U.S. Department of Education found that students offered private-school choice by winning a random lottery graduated from high school at the rate of 82 percent, compared with 70 percent for the control group. The impact of actually using an Opportunity Scholarship was to increase the likelihood of graduation by 21 percentage points, from 70 percent to 91 percent. Over 90 percent of the participants in the study were African American, and almost all of the rest were Latino American.

Common Core End Game

For far too long a big part of the Common Core debate has been about establishing simple fact: the federal government provided serious coercion to get states to adopt the Core, and the Core’s creators asked for such arm twisting. Indeed, just yesterday, Andy Smarick at the Core-supporting Thomas B. Fordham Institute lamented that the write-up for President Obama’s education budget proposal gives the administration credit for widespread Core adoption. Wrote Smarick: “The anti-Common Core forces will likely use this language as evidence that Common Core was federally driven.” Of course it was federally driven, by Race to the Top (RTTT) and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers! But the budget proposal tells us far more than that.

The big story in the proposal is – or, at least, should be – that the president almost certainly wants to make the Core permanent by attaching annual federal funding to its use, and to performance on related tests. Just as the administration called for in its 2010 NCLB reauthorization proposal, POTUS wants to employ more than a one-time program, or temporary waivers, to impose “college and career-ready standards,” which–thanks to RTTT and waivers–is essentially synonymous with Common Core. In fact, President Obama proposes changing Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – of which NCLB is just the most recent reauthorization – to a program called “College- and Career-Ready Students,” with an annual appropriation of over $14 billion. 

This was utterly predictable. Core opponents, who are so often smeared as conspiracy mongers, know full well both what the President has proposed in the past, and how government accumulates power over time. RTTT was the foot in the door, and once most states were using the same standards and tests, there was little question what Washington would eventually say: “Since everyone’s using the same tests and standards anyway, might as well make federal policy based on that.” Perhaps given the scorching heat the Common Core has been taking lately, most people didn’t expect the administration to make the move so soon, but rational people knew it would eventually come. Indeed, the “tripod” of standards, tests, and accountability that many Core-ites believe is needed to make “standards-based reform” function, logically demands federal control. After all, a major lesson of NCLB is that states will not hold themselves accountable for setting and clearing high academic bars.

While it’s a crucial fact, the full story on the Common Core isn’t that the feds coerced adoption. It is that the end game is almost certainly complete federal control by connecting national standards and tests to annual federal funding. And that, it is now quite clear, is no conspiracy theory.  

Why Would School Staff Force a Student to Freeze?

It seems mind-boggling. Minnesota public school staff forced a barefoot teenage girl in a wet bathing suit to stand outside in sub-zero weather until she developed frostbite. 

It happened around 8:30 a.m. Wednesday at Como Park High School in St. Paul. Fourteen-year-old Kayona Hagen-Tietz says she was in the school’s pool when the fire alarm went off.

While other students had gotten out earlier and were able to put on dry clothes, Hagen-Tietz said she was rushed out with just her towel.

On Wednesday morning, the temperature was 5 below, and the wind chill was 25 below.

A teacher prevented her from getting her clothes from her locker because the rules stipulate that everyone must immediately leave the building in the event of a fire alarm. Shivering, the student pleaded to be allowed to go inside a car or another building but her request was denied.

Hagen-Tietz asked to wait inside an employee’s car, or at the elementary school across the street. But administrators believed that this would violate official policy, and could get the school in trouble, so they opted to simply let the girl freeze.

Students huddled around her and a teacher gave her a coat, but she stood barefoot for ten minutes before obtaining permission to sit in a vehicle. By that point, she had already developed frostbite.

Pounding the Table, Not the Facts, on School Choice

There’s an old legal proverb about how to win a court case: “If the law is on your side, pound the law. If the facts are on your side, pound the facts. If neither is on your side, pound the table.” In this factually-challenged attack on school choice, two lawyers at the UNC Center for Civil Rights do a great deal of table pounding.

Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, the lawyers charge that school choice programs don’t work and that they increase racial segregation. For example, they claim: 

…in states with [school choice] programs, student achievement at the private schools is no better, and often worse, than in the public schools. In fact, in Milwaukee and Cleveland, whose voucher programs are the country’s longest running, traditional public school students outperform voucher students on available proficiency measures.

Even read in the most charitable light, the lawyers misleadingly compare apples and orangutans. Participants in school choice programs are generally more disadvantaged than the general population, so it is absurd to compare their average performance against the general population, which includes all the students in wealthy “public” school districts (where low-income parents have been arrested for trying to enroll their kids). Government school advocates rightly object when someone compares average private school performance to average government school performance. The private schools outperform government schools on average, but because both parents and the private schools select each other, the comparison breaks down. The same is true here.

A meaningful comparison requires a randomized-controlled trial, which is the gold standard of social science research because the process of randomization allows researchers to compare like against like and to isolate the effect of the “treatment” (in this case, the offer of a school choice scholarship). Fortunately, there have been 12 such studies addressing this very question from highly-respected institutions like Harvard University and the Brookings Institution. Eleven found that school choice programs lead to positive student outcomes, including higher academic performance and higher rates of high school graduation and college matriculation. One study found no statistically significant difference and none found a negative impact.